HL Deb 20 October 1987 vol 489 cc4-6

3.10 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the degree of protection to the consumer at present afforded by the Telecommunications Act 1984.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, yes. The Telecommunications Act 1984 established the office of the Director-General of Telecommunications. Among his duties he has to exercise his functions in the way best calculated to promote the interests of the consumers.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is not the noble Lord aware that the main objective in privatising British Telecom was to give the customers a better all round service? Can he tell me, bearing in mind the recent very adverse report issued by Oftel, when the Government expect British Telecom to reach the objective set in the Act?

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, clearly there are problems to be tackled and British Telecom sees that as a high priority. However, we should not overlook the scale of BT's operations. There are 22 million customers and complex switching operations, combined with extensive modernisation, which are bound to create problems; but I believe that a privatised British Telecom in a competitive environment is best placed to handle them.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government are still a major shareholder in British Telecom? After the events on the Stock Exchange over the past 36 hours they are liable to remain so for some time. Therefore, is it not right that the Government, as a shareholder, should use their authority to require BT to pay more attention to proper complaints from consumers, to publish data on sales and what goes wrong, as BT used to do, and to exercise proper discretion in the choice of its chairman? Above all, should not British Telcom stop overcharging its clients?

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, British Telecom operates under a licence which contains detailed conditions on service. The Director-General of Telecommunications is responsible for monitoring and enforcing that licence. The choice of chairman is a matter for the company, not the Government. The Government welcome Mr. Vallance's commitment to tackle the problems with vigour and to improve the company's services for its customers.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the experience with British Telecom indicates that these complicated arrangements such as Oftel and others are no substitute for parliamentary protection for the consumer? Will the Government bear that in mind before taking any other steps which may have adverse consequences; for example, with the electricity and water industries?

Lord Beaverbrook

I seem to remember, my Lords, that before the privatisation of British Telecom it was rare to receive any reply to complaints.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to problems that have arisen, but together with many other people I had a perfectly good telephone service before privatisation. Can he explain where the competitiveness comes in?

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, the competitiveness comes from an organisation called Mercury, which is increasingly making an impact by offering customers the possibility of choice. Its services are at present predominantly for business customers but trials have started on residential services.

Earl De La Warr

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, particularly in view of what has been said about the choice of chairman, this House and this country owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Sir George Jefferson for the work he did during the very difficult and complex time when he was in the chair and started the company on its new role?

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I join my noble friend in that tribute.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does not the noble Lord admit that the Government are genuinely concerned by the widespread dissatisfaction of customers with the performance of British Telecom since privatisation? Will he say precisely what the Government propose to do to allay that dissatisfaction? Will he go further and advise his right honourable friends to defer any further privatisation, especially in the water industry, at least until they get the position right?

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, we believe that the director-general has sufficient powers to enforce the rigorous provisions of British Telecom's licence and to amend these conditions either by agreement or by reference to the MMC. British Telecom and other operators are well aware of Oftel's powers. I should add that the director-general has not suggested that he needs further powers.

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